Some tips for your obituary

For some time, I’ve been writing obituaries for a secular educational institution (which, for the sake of the failing hearts of its remaining alumni, will remain anonymous). The process is simple: A family member or someone from institutional research submits a note or a published obituary, and then I condense the information it contains into 100-150-word obits that are consistent in style and tone. After I look up a few additional facts and fill in the essential details, there’s only space for 75-100 words to summarize your entire life. If your postmortal ambitions include having a satisfying obituary, I have some suggestions.

Show, don’t tell. I will try to express in a few words what you most valued, but you have to give me something to work with. If the submitted material reads, “She passionately supported environmental causes,” that sentence will most likely get scrapped as empty verbiage. On the other hand, if I can write, “She spent countless weekends cataloging wildlife and organizing preservation efforts for the McElroy peninsula wetlands,” her support for the environment is obvious from her actions. Make sure your actions reflect the values you claim to hold, and I’ll make sure it comes through in your obituary. Otherwise, I’ll use the extra space for the tech genius turned ambassador to the UN.

Career success is a two-edged sword. As dictated by the house style, the first thing I write following the basic details of your death will describe your career. This can range from a half sentence (“He worked in estate planning…”) to a long description of agencies headed, governments advised, or companies founded, depending on how impressed I think readers will be. A series of executive posts is not necessarily better than one easily described job, especially a job done well. An excess of career detail is actually the bigger hazard, as you can begin to look ruthless rather than accomplished. If leading government agencies or founding companies was your thing, try to show me that you were a well-rounded person some other way, and I won’t leave you looking like a success-driven monster in your obit.

The focus on career can put women who faced the constraints of earlier generations or were full-time homemakers at a disadvantage, so I try to emphasize the dignity of their choices in the context of their circumstances. I have to describe their lives, though, rather than their children’s accomplishments or their husband’s careers. It helps if there are details that show initiative and leadership in whatever sphere a woman acted in.

Time, not money. There are no shortcuts to being well rounded. Every rich person has a checkbook, and unless your name is Gates, your charitable donations are not making it into the obituary. On the other hand, if you take an hour away from the C-suite (or the drugstore cash register) every Wednesday afternoon to tutor middle school kids, I’ll definitely mention that. Your money can do a lot of good in the world, but it won’t make it into your obituary. Express your values with your time.

Retirement: anything but golf, tennis, and bridge. Unless you die tragically young, you are most likely going to spend some time in retirement. (You don’t have to retire, though—the guys who keep showing up at the office until they’re 93 because they love estate planning actually come off looking pretty good, because it suggests they weren’t just in it for the money.) It’s fine if you choose to spend 30 years on nothing but golf, tennis, and bridge, but with so many people spending their retirement playing golf, tennis, and bridge, it’s not worth mentioning in an 80-word summary of your life. At best, it sounds vacuous. Make sure to have at least one post-retirement activity that clearly expresses your values. PS: If your proudest accomplishment is a hole in one, your obit will inevitably appear right after one of your peers who also hit a hole in one, and you can bet I’m going to include both those unique accomplishments.

Everybody loves to travel. And that’s a problem. You think you’ve been to Europe a lot? One of your deceased peers helped write the Marshall Plan. You visited all seven continents? Another one of your peers did, too, while working undercover for the CIA. Unless your travel included a stint on SpaceLab, everywhere you went will get boiled down to “enjoyed travel,” or less. If there’s one particular place you found solace, or where you engaged deeply with the local culture, I’ll mention that, though. Tourism isn’t interesting in an obituary, but making deep connections is.

Don’t neglect your family. Not everyone will marry or have children. If you fill your life with friendship or commitment to a cause, I will honor that in your obituary. Former spouses are not uncommon, and leaving the worthless bum out of your obituary is fine. I think it looks classy and magnanimous to mention former spouses, but I’ll follow your lead.

There is no such thing as former children, however. If the source material gushes about your contributions to the arts or to eye-popping corporate profits, and it takes a database search to discover that you had four children with a former spouse,  none of whom your friends or co-workers knew about, I will not be impressed. I won’t force your children into your obituary, but I won’t use the space for extra details of your business successes, either. I have to find ten more words for that tech genius/UN ambassador, after all.

Also, to avoid confusion: Pets will not be listed as survivors under any circumstances.

Latter-day Saint obituaries are different. Sometimes all it takes is a name (something like “George Albert McConkie”) to make me suspect the deceased was a member of the church. Often it becomes obvious quite quickly. Source obits from the Deseret News frequently mention missionary service, temple marriage, and church callings, not to mention a surprising number of great-grandchildren. For me, writing the obituaries of corporate titans or political stars is merely a job. I’m more impressed by astronauts. But there’s a certain variety of Mormon academic whose combination of career success and church service leaves me feeling entirely inadequate. It’s an occupational hazard.

Latter-day Saint obits do present some challenges. Imagine that you served a mission, married in the Idaho Falls temple, served as an early morning seminary teacher for twenty years, and spent another year as a temple missionary after retirement. Now imagine that I have to restate all of that in terms that non-religious readers can comprehend. I’ll do it, though. Your life reflects your values, and I’ll figure out how to make that legible to the readers. I try to do the same with any serious commitment, whether it’s to Greenpeace or Islam or Methodism. Mere membership in a church usually doesn’t make the cut, but if you proselytized in the Philippines, took minor orders, or served on the vestry, it stays.

7 comments for “Some tips for your obituary

  1. This is great. For a view of the lighter side of obituaries, I recommend “The Dead Beat” by Marilyn Johnson. It came out ten years ago, but is a laugh-out-loud read in some parts. I (as an attorney) especially enjoyed the obiturary of a defense counsel in England with a particularly vicious court anecdote.

  2. The subtext here is wonderful: Live your life with an eye to what you want to appear in your obituary, and your life will be unavoidably better.

  3. Excellent article. One of the things I’m seeing in it is that the things you have done for someone other than yourself is what will be mentioned.

  4. Today’s Wall Street Journal (April 22) has a section on retirement and an article on writing your obituary. All day I’ve been thinking about what mine should say, so this post adds more food for thought. I started out and realized mine was more like a CV. Oops, work to be done.

  5. Susan, you know how they say an academic CV doesn’t work well as a resume? It’s even worse as an obituary. It all turns into “numerous books, articles, and patents” or similar. Positions held and awards received tend to get mentioned, but academics should develop a 10-word obituary version of their research efforts: “studied modernist poetry of indigenous Canadians” or similar would work well. The worst is when I have a ton of source material, like an artist with too many exhibits to count, but I can’t make any sense of it because it all looks like abstract squares to me, and the source text only provides vapid puffery. Also, the CV of a prominent academic can supply so many positions held, honors won, and research published that it raises the same problem as the multiple-time CEO; did Mr. Professor ever leave the office? A well-chosen hobby and a few family backpacking trips can really help round out the obituary in those cases.

    But, yes, the weakness of a CV-as-obituary crosses my mind regularly these days.

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